Jonathan Vilma saw Frank Gore’s ability up close in high school

New Orleans linebacker Jonathan Vilma goes way back with 49ers running back Frank Gore – back to their days at Coral Gables (Fla.) High even before they were teammates at the University of Miami.

So Vilma knows Gore’s frustration over wandering in the NFL netherworld for the first six years of his pro career. As Vilma and Giants safety Antrel Rolle and onetime Saints tight end Jeremy Shockey – all Miami alums – won Super Bowl rings, Gore didn’t even sniff the playoffs.

That makes this week’s trip to the Super Bowl even sweeter, in some ways.

“It was really tough for him, with all his compadres from UM having team success in the NFL,” Vilma said in a phone interview today. “Frank had been to the Pro Bowl a few times, but he was tired of hearing how good he was and how terrible the team was.

“These last two years have been great for him – he finally got a taste of what it’s like to be a contender. I’m happy for him. He’s truly enjoyed the last two seasons. It’s invigorated him a little bit.”

Vilma, a three-time Pro Bowl selection perhaps best known for his involvement in the Saints bounty scandal (and his subsequent lawsuit against NFL commissioner Roger Goodell), helped New Orleans win the Super Bowl after the 2009 season. That almost highlighted San Francisco’s struggles for Gore; the 49ers were 37-59 in his first six seasons, from 2005 through ’10.

“He was happy for me, of course, but it’s one of those things where it’s like, ‘When is it my turn?’ ” Vilma said. “Now he finally has a chance.”

It didn’t take long for Vilma, who was one year ahead of Gore in school, to learn about the running back’s ambition. Soon after they met, before Gore’s sophomore season at Coral Gables, a soon-to-be-senior running back began spouting off about his anticipated turn as the starter.

“The guy was bragging about how he couldn’t wait to run the ball,” Vilma said. “Frank didn’t talk a lot, but I remember him looking at the guy, like, ‘You don’t really know what’s coming.’ I could tell Frank’s fiery, competitive nature.

“He didn’t say much until we got in pads – and then he lit it up. He was legit from the start. Needless to say, he took the guy’s starting spot. No one knew who Frank was, but he just had that look.”

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